Regional Planning Re-Born

In early 2004, the newly elected Liberal government of Dalton McGuinty embarked on an ambitious program of regional planning. First came the creation of an extensive regional Greenbelt, then passage of the Places to Grow Act in 2005, and then, in June 2006, the release of the “Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe,” the first regional plan for the Toronto Metropolitan Region in more than 30 years. This plan promises new levels of urban intensification, revitalized downtowns, better conceived new suburbs, improved regional transportation, protected farmland — and generally a more carefully managed, more efficient, and more equitable region. Its effectiveness cannot be measured, for its implementation has just begun, but the plan itself can be placed in the context of the region’s planning history.

As a preliminary point it is worth noting that the release of the Growth Plan demonstrates a simple but critical theme in this history — regional planning in the Toronto metropolitan area has occurred when the Ontario government wanted it to occur. Despite the many differences in the three major planning thrusts recounted here — the “Official Plan of the Metropolitan Toronto Planning Area” and related metropolitan planning activities; “Design for Development: the Toronto-Centred Region”; and the “Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe” — all resulted from provincial government action. For all the talk of regional economies and identities, the region itself has never, nor could it have, initiated a regional planning process. And when provincial politics have not favoured government interventions, the region has not been planned.

Continuities with the Past

This new Growth Plan has unmistakable continuities with the Conservative government’s earlier steps into conservation and regional planning. The Greenbelt is essentially an expansion of the Oak Ridges Moraine Conservation Plan — it takes the same pragmatic approach, and uses similar land use designations — and many of the Growth Plan’s details are clearly rooted in the work of the Conservative government’s Central Ontario Smart Growth Panel. Some key civil servants and consultants worked on both projects. The plan also owes something to earlier work by the GTSB and even earlier work by the OGTA, such as the “Urban Structures Study” by the IBI Group and subsequent reports.49

But it is not correct to see this new plan as simply one more chapter in a long history of successful planning in central Ontario. With all due respect to Minister Caplan and his researchers who have made this claim, such a statement oversimplifies the region’s planning history and undervalues what makes the Places to Grow Act and the Growth Plan so different and potentially so effective. 

To begin, the idea that Ontario has a deeply rooted culture of planning needs critical examination. The region has had its plans and planning, but it has also had periods without either. And the success of metropolitan planning in the postwar years arguably owes more to that generation’s widespread acceptance of government action and technical authorities than to any essential traits of the nation or province. When the postwar generation passed, the acceptability of centralized comprehensive planning passed too. The citizens and smaller municipalities of the region turned sharply against regional planning in the 1970s, as they did elsewhere. Something of the planning ethos smouldered on — an important and intriguing point — but the embers were faint and incipient flare-ups were decisively extinguished.

New-Style Regional Planning

With this more complete historical perspective, the Places to Grow initiative becomes something quite different: the first concerted attempt to counter a prevailing culture of regional non-planning, a novel effort to reintroduce provincially directed regional planning to doubting municipalities. The Growth Plan is not simply another in a long line of plans. It is a new-style regional plan. Unlike regional plans of the past, its goals were arrived at after hundreds, perhaps thousands, of hours of public “visioning,” and its general principles will be implemented by local planning authorities, not by a provincial or region-wide body. Which is to say that growth will go where the local citizenry wishes it go. This, we are told by insightful planning historian Robert Fishman, is what 21st-century regional planning needs to be: a “regional conversation rather than a top-down exercise in power.”50

The potential flaw in this approach might be that it simply will not work. Regional planning, almost by definition, needs some regional authority telling its subordinate jurisdictions what can and cannot be done. It is hard to imagine that planning by “regional conversation” can yield the fundamental changes that, in its goals and visions, the Growth Plan claims to be pursuing. A regional conversation looks more like a recipe for business as usual. From the experience of the Metropolitan Toronto Planning Board it seems clear that at some point, effective regional plans must make some people unhappy. Can the Growth Plan do this? When it comes time to decide where new development will or will not occur, what form it has to take, and where roads or pipes will or will not be built — or where the sewage treatment plant is going to be built — can a regional “conversation” get the job done?

To this objection, the plan’s advocates might well counter that, although many of the plan’s key principles were arrived at through a “conversation,” there are now provincial regulations in place that compel compliance. Furthermore, unauthoritative as the plan might be in some ways, it still is more likely to achieve its goals than an authoritative plan that municipalities oppose and resist — a point that the region’s planning history offers plenty of evidence to support.

Places to Grow and the TCR

Comparing the Growth Plan with the region’s other major provincial planning initiative, TCR, two similarities immediately present themselves. One is the areal extent of the regions, which is somewhat surprising considering how much growth occurred between 1970 and 2005. But apart from the inclusion of Niagara in the Greater Golden Horseshoe, and a slightly further reach to the east and the west, the regions are the same.

The other is the goals, which are unsettlingly similar. Both plans promise to enhance, promote, preserve, protect, optimize, facilitate, maximize, and minimize the region into an equally ideal state.51 There are some minor differences in their lists, reflecting the different priorities or concerns in the eras the plans were conceived — improving public transit is spelled out as a goal in the Growth Plan but not in the TCR, while the TCR is perhaps more futuristic than the Growth Plan — but overall, one cannot help but notice, and be a little amused by, their similarities. The bogeymen of 1970 are much the same as they are now — sprawl, pollution, lack of community, poor transportation, inefficient use of infrastructure, and economic underperformance.

One basic difference between the two planning schemes is how they were developed — the Places to Grow program and the Growth Plan itself being a product of consultation much more than the TCR ever was. There are other important differences. Places to Grow is one of several related provincial initiatives, the others being the regional greenbelt, tighter provincial criteria for permitting urban boundary extensions, and the creation of a provincial agency to marshal capital investment into infrastructure. In fact the whole new planning endeavour is founded on its own provincial legislation, the Places to Grow Act. The TCR never had such supporting programs. 

As well, the Growth Plan is much more developed than the TCR ever had a chance to become — the specificity of its population projections, urban intensification targets, and prescribed population and job densities for urban growth centres being the most obvious illustrations. These differences likely reflect different scales of operations within the provincial civil service. The TCR, although it was supported at the highest levels of the Robarts government, was not given the personnel or the time that the current government’s Growth Secretariat has received.

But there are similarities between the two that give one pause. First is the mixing together of growth promotion and growth management. Perhaps doing so is inevitable in an extensive regional plan. But it should not be forgotten that the addition of an aggressive regional development component helped sink the TCR, both by muddying the plan’s goals and policies and by opening it up to additional criticism. Admittedly, the Growth Plan is not guided by regional development priorities to the extent the TCR was, and it shows no hint of TCR-style growth promotion in distant “Zone 3” communities. Nevertheless, the similarities between the two plans in this regard are unmistakable. In both plans, some of the centres slated for growth want growth promoted, some want it controlled, and some do not want it at all. One wonders if this might be a recipe for policy confusion and politically motivated decisions.

Another important similarity is that, like the TCR, the Growth Plan does not have a transportation plan. Both schemes include “conceptual” transportation plans, but nothing concrete. This observation might be considered premature, as the Growth Plan promises a transportation plan, fully integrated with its regional growth plan, in due course. But the point can not be so easily dismissed, because the TCR promised the very same thing — a future transportation plan — yet failed to deliver it.52 Everyone in planning knows the importance of integrating land use and transportation, but in this region, since 1970, achieving such integration has not been easy.

The basic concept of the current growth plan shows strong continuities with the prior work of the Central Ontario Smart Growth Panel. From “Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe” (2006)

Places to Grow and Metropolitan Planning

The differences between Places to Grow and the activities of the MTPB are so great that any comparison between them must be done cautiously. There is simply no chance that the MTPB’s successes — based as they were on expert-driven planning, a consensus in favour of growth, and public consultation primarily with elite citizens — could be emulated now, in the first decade of the 21st century, and no one would want to suggest that they could. The failure of the Golden Report and the Who Does What Panel to garner support for a new regional government structure — essentially to replicate the creation of Metro Toronto 50 years on — stands as clear evidence of how times have changed. But two points of comparison might be useful.

One is the scope of planning responsibility. The MTPB and its staff planned for the entire metropolitan area, but concerned themselves only with urban and urbanizing places in that area. What occurred in the rural townships was not their affair, unless urbanization was proposed. The Growth Plan works from a different premise (as did the TCR). It takes full planning responsibility for the entire region, and concerns itself as much with smaller cities like Peterborough and St Catharines and the use of agricultural land, as it does with the main growing urban areas.

There is certainly something to be said for the more complete approach taken in the Growth Plan — some consider it to be the only true regional planning — but so too is there something to be said for treating growing urban areas separately, because such places have planning problems that are very different from those in small or slow-growing towns. Faced with this situation, the TCR planners set up a special task force to study just the urban zone of the TCR, though the TCR was a spent force by this time and nothing ever came of the task force’s work.53 And one cannot help but notice that the MTPB had both the most urban-focused planning program and the most success.

The provision of capital for public works, while not strictly a planning matter, offers another useful point of comparison. One of the key policies of the government of Metropolitan Toronto was to build infrastructure with borrowed capital. Accordingly, Metro’s financial managers issued debentures as needed — over $800 million worth in just 10 years — to build the roads, subways, pipes, and schools that were the foundation of urban growth. Property assessments increased as well, nearly doubling from $2.4 billion to $4.4 billion in Metro’s same first 10 years, so the technique worked just as it was supposed to, allowing the debt to be serviced and ultimately paid down.54

The current government recognizes the importance of investing in public infrastructure, and has arranged for investment capital to be provided through the new ReNew Ontario agency. It will likely establish “public-private partnerships” rather than run up the public debt, since among elected politicians fear of public debt now seems to be greater than fear of private control over public works, but that difference might not end up being important. 

What is also different, and what might matter more, is the area for which the financing agency is responsible. ReNew Ontario, as a provincial agency, will undoubtedly be facing demands for capital from Kenora to Cornwall, and decisions on what to finance will be subject to countless political pressures. Metro Toronto in the 1950s, since it borrowed its own money, was free to set its own investment priorities, and Metro Toronto certainly seems to have been better

Notes
49. The most significant are Ontario, Office for the Greater Toronto Area,Shaping Growth in the GTA (1992) [prepared by Berridge Lewinberg Greenberg Ltd.], and Ontario, Provincial-Municipal Urban Form Working Group, Urban Form, Bringing the Vision into Focus: Report of the Provincial-Municipal Urban Form Working Group (1993).
50. Robert Fishman, “The Death and Life of American Regional Planning,” in Bruce Katz, ed., Reflections on Regionalism, Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2000, 119.
51. “Design for Development: The Toronto-Centred Region,” 10-11; Places to Grow, 9-10.
52. Places to Grow, 24; “Design for Development: The Toronto-Centred Region,” 21.
53. Ontario, “Report to the Advisory Committee on Urban and Regional Planning of the COLUC Task Force” (1974).
54. Metropolitan Toronto Annual Report, 1965, 11; Carl Goldenberg, “Report of the Royal Commission on Metropolitan Toronto” (Toronto 1966), 78 and 109.